Florida Cane vodka distilled here in Tampa Bay 

The Brandon-based distillery hopes to become the state’s favorite vodka.

The recession may have slowed down the economy, but it also helped drive the local-centric movement we know so well today. That’s what happened with Lee Nelson, who back in 2007-2008 started to reconsider where he was spending his money.

“I became obsessed with finding American-made products and reinvesting in the community by investing locally,” said Nelson, who works by day as a project manager for JPMorgan Chase. “I wanted to make a spirit that was 100 percent Florida-made.”

With the help of his wife Sarah and fellow recreational hockey player Pat O’Brien (and partners Dan and Tia Norman), Nelson launched Florida Cane Distillery Vodka, a 100 percent Florida-made vodka (the glass bottle is the only non-Florida component, which Nelson purchases from Missouri). Pooling their savings, and $30,000 in crowd-sourced funding from Lending Club (which treats funds raised as a loan rather than a donation), they started a distillery.

“I was the nutty guy at parties talking about this,” Nelson said, “and Pat was the only guy who listened.”

The water comes directly from the Florida aquifer via a well located just beneath their distillery in Brandon. The vodka is made using raw cane sugar from South Florida. Only Florida produce is used for flavored versions; that means locally sourced oranges, grapes, watermelons, strawberries and more. The vodka is distilled, then filtered using the custom-built inverted copper system (which uses carbon derived from coconut husks to filter the vodka).

Not unlike America’s craft beer boom, domestic distilleries are popping up across the country (Tampa’s Touch Vodka is one local example). Florida’s Craft Distillers Guild currently sports 15 Florida-based distilleries as members. More on are the way, including Key West’s first legal rum distillery, Chef Distilled (coming in October), housed in an old Coca-Cola bottling plant by Amigos Chef Paul Menta. The guild, along with Nelson and Menta, passed legislation to allow small craft distillers to sell on-site at the end of June. Governor Rick Scott signed HB 347, allowing distillers of vodka, rum, and whiskey to sell direct to the public. It was a big victory that showed progress in the evolving relationship statewide between alcohol producers and distributors.

“They [distributors] saw what we were trying to do and got that we’re not the competition,” Menta told CL.

Now, distillers like Nelson and Menta and so many others across the state can make up to 75,000 gallons annually and sell each customer two bottles per year. That means distillers like Florida Cane Vodka can serve and sell from on-site tasting rooms.

“It was a big grassroots effort,” Nelson said of the legislative compromise. “Let’s spur the craft distill movement. And we hope that 20 other distilleries pop up in Tampa just like what’s happened with beer. It’s better for all of us.”

Florida Cane Vodka’s tasting room opened for business officially on Fri., Oct. 4 (reservations required). The vodka made the rounds at Disney and Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival earlier this year. This week Nelson and O’Brien announced they’d be sponsoring this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning games with their homegrown vodkas. For the hockey-centric Florida Cane Distillery crew, it’s a big deal to serve exclusive vodka for the local NHL team. Craft cocktail drinkers should note that the cocktails made with Florida Cane Vodka for the Lightning are being designed by master mixologist Ro Patel, the man behind Anise, Ciro’s and so many other great cocktail recipes.

And vodka, they say, is only the beginning. Florida Cane Distillery is looking ahead at distilling a line of whiskeys, too.

“We want to be the Tito’s [vodka, distilled in Austin] of Florida,” O’Brien said. “Our goal is to be Florida’s vodka.”

Reservations required for tasting room visit, 10 people per visit. Florida Cane Distillery, 501 S. Falkenberg Road Ste. C-6, Tampa, 813-347-6565.

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